The Pacific Northwest continues to be a destination for immigrants and visitors from the former Soviet Union, especially Ukraine. Seattle is home to a long-established Ukrainian religious community as well as a sizable diaspora that has become more visible over the past few years through cultural events and fundraisers for those affected by the war in the Donbas. Despite the large number of ethnic Ukrainians and the growing influence of Ukrainian culture, there was no official Ukrainian diplomatic presence in the Northwest until late 2014, when Rivne-born Valeriy Goloborodko was tapped to open an honorary consulate here in King County. Earlier this year, the Honorary Consulate of Ukraine in Seattle for Washington and Oregon opened its doors as an attempt to promote economic and cultural ties between the region and Ukraine.
Goloborodko met the Ellison Center at the office of the Ukrainian Honorary Consulate in Redmond, where he spoke about his vision for the future of relations between the Pacific Northwest and his native country.
What is the Honorary Consulate seeking to achieve?
Right now, there are about 60,000 people with Ukrainian heritage in the community. My dream is to be able to say that there is one Ukrainian diaspora—to unite people. To do that, the honorary consulate is organizing events. One of the recent events was the Northwest Ukrainian International Festival. We call it “international” because we want to show that we accept other cultures and we want to see other communities join. We had around 12,000 people attend, which was a big surprise for everyone. I expected 5,000 to 7,000 people. These kinds of events help to unite the community.
In January we will have a Ukrainian Christmas celebration. We will have guests from Ukraine and from Canada come and perform. It will be in Auburn. We invite Ukrainian performers. You may have heard of Okean Elzy (Ukraine’s biggest pop band). They are coming to Seattle. We are trying to work with different cultural organizations and event organizers to get more people to come from Ukraine. We are also working on a number of projects with businesses to help them succeed and build relations.
What is your background? How did you get involved with this project?
I was born in the Rivne region in western Ukraine in 1982. I moved a few times with my parents throughout the country. My parents taught me love for neighbors, love for community, and love for country–so that was patriotism for us. That was the kind of environment I grew up with, and instilled a desire to serve the people around me. After I graduated high school, I studied at the International Christian University in Kyiv, where I received a bachelor’s degree in management of information systems. Later, I received a master’s degree in law at Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv. After working as an assistant attorney at a real estate development company for two years in Ukraine, I got married and moved to Santa Barbara, where I worked as a driver for FedEx-Kinko’s. That was a big change, but it was a good way to develop strength of character for me.
I was always looking for places where there were more Ukrainians and where there was an opportunity to serve my country and community. I started working with the American European Bethel Mission. We went to Israel twice and once even took the president of the mission to Ukraine. I showed him the need there.
We initially came to Seattle to visit a friend who was living here. We loved the place and decided to move. I started a credit card processing company. I soon saw a need to unite Ukrainian people, so I started the Ukrainian Brotherhood, but it was hard. I couldn’t unite people on the idea that they were from Ukraine alone. There weren’t enough people who wanted to join. I found that most people in our community are refugees who were persecuted under the Soviet Union for their faith. So they came with this mentality that nothing that comes from the government is good and so they didn’t want to join any organization, because they remembered how they were forced to join the party under the Soviet regime.
I decided to take a different approach and started the Ukrainian Business Association and started to unite business owners. That was successful because they don’t care about language, they don’t care about ethnicity, or religion, they care about making good projects and making money. We signed an agreement between trade organizations in Kherson (city in southern Ukraine) and the Kent Chamber of Commerce. There were a few successful projects. I was working closely with our embassy, and one day the ambassador called me and asked me about my background and what I did for a living, and asked if I would be interested in becoming an honorary consul, because this region is very important for Ukraine and there was no representation. I thought about it for a while, and then agreed. On October 14, 2014 I was appointed as Honorary Consul of Ukraine for Washington and Oregon. Since then I have just basically been doing what I was doing, but in a more official capacity. It gives me the opportunity to do more.
What was the relationship between the Pacific Northwest and Ukraine like before the consulate opened?
There was a sister cities relationship between Kherson and Kent, but—and this is to
my shame—it ended due to inactivity on the Ukrainian side. This was under the previous regime of Viktor Yanukovych. The Kherson side was unresponsive to letters from Kent, so Kent decided to end the relationship. Now I’m working to resurrect those relations. We established relations between the Kent and Kherson Chambers of Commerce, so this is a step.
We are also working with Seattle Mayor Ed Murray to sign an agreement between Seattle and Lviv. There is a proclamation where Mayor Murray proclaimed August 24 (Ukrainian Independence Day) the Day of Ukraine. In one of the paragraphs it says Seattle and Lviv are interested in pursuing a partnership. Hopefully this agreement will be signed in 2017. That would mean that we could see more delegations from Lviv visiting Seattle. We are hoping to have an agreement between the University of Washington and Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, and we are working on developing more relations between Seattle Children’s Hospital and Ohmatdet, a Ukrainian children’s hospital. We are working on an experience exchange program for the two medical teams. This partnership memorandum is just the beginning of the partnership between the two cities.
Do you think there has been an attempt to make Ukrainians and Ukrainian culture more visible in the Seattle community since the events of 2013-2014?
Definitely. We have a rich culture, and we have values and traditions that we want to share. We want to be more integrated in the local community, and we want them to better understand us. There has been a lot of propaganda coming out of Russian media about Ukraine and the people of Ukraine. We have heard many different nasty things about Ukrainians, and it’s not true. We want to prove that we bring value to this country. If we are better integrated into the local community, everyone will benefit.
Lastly, we are trying to send humanitarian aid to Ukraine. The local community has sent many containers of aid, including medical equipment, to hospitals to save the lives of wounded soldiers. We are hosting events to do this. We are also trying to build bridges with other nationalities. We helped the Russian community who planted trees in honor of Boris Nemtsov, for example.